On one level a meditation on the changing face of Japanese culture and its attitudes towards honor, friendship, love, and death as well as a sly subversion of all of these things, this novel centers around the friendship between the narrator and the man he calls Sensei, who is haunted by mysterious events in his past. As the friendship grows and the narrator learns more about the man he so admires, he is increasingly intrigued by his hidden history. The Sensei refuses to divulge anything until the narrator is called away to look after his sick father, and the truth is finally revealed amidst tragic circumstances.
I brought Kokoro with me to Japan when I studied abroad. There I struggled again to find connection and meaning in my life, and during a particularly depressing day I sat down and read Kokoro cover to cover. It has been said that when we read we are searching for ourselves. I found myself in Kokoro. The feelings within the novel, and the way they are expressed, resonate with me in a way that no other book has managed. When I feel sad and alone I think of Sensei, and I am not alone anymore.
Kokoro is a much more complex novel than what my gushing might suggest. It isn't melodramatic. It isn't overly emotional. It is restrained and intensely introspective. Kokoro spurred my love of Japanese literature, I think it is a terrible shame that more people aren't exposed to this masterpiece. I look for excuses to suggest it to pretty much everyone I meet, and I would certainly suggest it to anyone who is looking for a book representing the finest fiction that the East has to offer.
The story is told in the first person by a young student who is studying for his graduation at the University in Tokyo. He has few friends and does not want to return home to the country house for his holidays and goes on vacation to the coast. On a crowded beach he first spies Sensei a middle aged Japanese man in the company of a Westerner. The student is curious and engineers a chance meeting on the beach a few days later when Sensei is on his own. He finds someone who seems to be a kindred spirit in that he also has few friends and has an inner life that is rarely revealed, but who has a wisdom and conversation on issues that particularly appeals to the young student. He assiduously courts Sensei’s company and eventually gets invited to his home after the vacation where he meets Sensei’s wife. He becomes Sensei’s friend and soon discovers that he is his only friend and he gradually becomes aware of a tragic event in Sensei’s earlier life that has shaped his current situation and left him with a melancholia that prevents him from working and from participation in normal life. Sensei is enigmatic and like the student, the reader is almost afraid to find out his terrible secret:
Sensei “I do not have the right to expect anything from this world”
Sensei “there is guilt in loving” he insists more than once.
Sensei “it is not you in particular that I distrust, But the whole of humanity”
Sensei "You see, loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves”
The student is called away from Tokyo to attend to his father who is slowly dying of a disease of the liver and he cannot get away to see Sensei. The students own problems take over his thoughts, but he is worried when a telegram arrives from Sensei followed shortly after by a long letter. Sensei has decided to unburden himself to his only friend and he starts by relating how his relations have cheated him out of his inheritance, but there is so much more and slowly the tragedy unfolds.
How can a sensitive, intelligent man like Sensei become so embittered and so isolated and the answer to this question goes to the core of the human condition; love, death, honour, friendship, family and betrayal are themes played out against the clash of the old country culture and modern city Westernisation. Above all this is a very human story of people unable to fit into a world in which the ground seems to be shifting away from under them and it is the old values which trap them, but which they cling to nevertheless.
Apart from an unforgettable story Soseki takes the reader into the milieu of pre first world war Japan. We glimpse a culture and a tradition that is told to us by an insider in such a way that we are soon immersed in it. Natsume Soseki has been labelled Japan’s first truly modern writer and this book published in 1914 is his masterpiece and enough to see him included in many lists of classic 20th century fiction, however don’t take the critics word for it, explore this mesmerising book yourself. From the first page to the last I was hooked and could not put it down. A five star read.
I am not familiar enough with Japanese history to appreciate the grander picture of this novel, but on its own, it's still a wonderful read. 4.5 stars
We have here a deeply sensuous and internal story concerned with a transitional period in Japan when it began to discard traditional Confucian societal guidelines and be increasingly influenced by Western values.
The plot circulates around a callow college student and his relationship with a seemingly misogynistic older man who lives an isolated life devoid of companionship except that of his wife and increasingly the young student.
Dominating plot is psychological character development based on the feeling of loneliness and self-ostracization due to guilt. Soseki, at the time he wrote this novel, was exploring the fractures in Japanese society at the end of the Meiji period and the influx of Western modes of thinking about social constructs and norms.
The overriding theme of loneliness is represented by the student's quest for knowledge from "Sensi" on how to fit into life, to discover a purpose when one is ill at ease, at sea, and a misfit. He is symbolic of the confusion and uncertainty of Japan's future as it leaves traditional Confucian guidelines behind, substituting Western ones that place greater emphasis on individuality rather than filial piety. These aspects are covered in Part I.
Part II demonstrates the disruption, chaos, and abandonment of earlier ideals as symbolized by the student's family life. His father is dying of a lingering illness (as is the old Empire: the Emperor dies and a national hero, Gen. Nogi, commits suicide to demonstrate his loyalty to the Old Way). The student vacillates between his own desire to strike out on his own and build a life in Tokyo, separating totally from his rural home and kin and remaining home to care for his soon-to-be widowed mother, demonstrating filial piety. The climax in the novel occurs when he receives a letter from Sensei, so disturbing, that he abandons his dying father to run to his teacher who is already dead by suicide. We understand Soseki's thematic intent.
Part III is Sensei's story, a melodramatic epistolary tale of betrayal and self-realization that leads to Sensei's psychological breakdown into a kind of paranoid and permanent depression. Only after meeting the student late in life, who is so much like him when young, yet uncompromisingly different, does Sensei confess in his letter to his only friend that he has found the courage to kill himself because: a) he is no better than those he despises, having exhibited the same behavior; b) he wants to end the agony of his guilt over his youthful betrayal of his friend, "K"; c) he wants to end the self-torture of being unable to believe himself a bad man or to believe himself a good man; d) he can never integrate himself into the New Japan and, so, like the general determines he will remain loyal to the past by not continuing into a future without hope for him.
Regarding thematic development and character analysis as an allegory for Japan on the threshold of seismic change, the novel is a masterpiece. But it is not without its faults. As a construction, the three parts are clunky and disunified. The writing is minimalistic but not individualistic so that it's hard to separate Soseki's style/signature as an author from other minimalist Japanese authors, say Kawabata, and the prose lacks an element of ethereal beauty that seems required.
However, Kokoro is undeniably a classic work that withstands time (written 100+ years ago) and remains modern because of its subject matter: the relationship and obligations of the individual during a period of cultural reorganization. The novel's timelessness is probably due to the treatment of psychological chaos and shattering, being utterly Japanese and without Freudian or Jungian examination. I am grateful for that.
The meeting between a young student and the man he would come to call Sensei happened more by chance than anything else, but their developing relationship became extremely important to both of them. The student is still inexperienced in life and is genuinely earnest while Sensei is significantly more world-weary. He has a melancholic air about him, something that even his wife fails at being able to explain. The student is utterly fascinated by the enigmatic Sensei and wonders at the past he keeps hidden. Sensei himself is unexpectedly drawn to the student, perhaps hoping that he can help the younger man avoid some of the mistakes he made in his own life, or perhaps it's just that he's finally found someone that he can trust with the guilt that he has carried alone all these years.
Kokoro is told in three parts. The first two parts, "Sensei and I" and "My Parents and I," are narrated by the unnamed student while the third part, "Sensei's Testament," takes the form of a lengthy letter written by Sensei, who also remains unnamed throughout the book, to the student. According to McKinney, "Sensei's Testament" was initially written as a standalone work; it certainly can easily be read as such. However, although they read significantly differently because of the change in narrators, I greatly appreciated the inclusion of the first two parts of the novel. Seeing Sensei through the eyes of the student, who is more or less enraptured by him, allows the readers a chance to become even more invested in and curious about the man, mirroring the student's own feelings. Even though Sensei tries to keep some distance between himself and the student, and even though the student actually knows very little about him, their relationship is a very intimate one without being sexual.
I enjoyed Kokoro immensely and am not at all surprised that it is called his masterpiece. I've not read any of his other works to be able to say so myself, but I am confident in saying that Kokoro is a remarkable piece of literature. I've also not read any of the other English translations of Kokoro to be able to compare, but I found McKinney's translation to be unobtrusive and it reads very nicely. Even though Kokoro was written in Japan in 1914, the themes that it deals with--love, trust, betrayal, and guilt--are pertinent regardless of time and place. While it captures the spirit of the dying Meiji era, it is still a potent story today. Although the narrative can feel somewhat forced at times, the characterization of the two unnamed protagonists is exceedingly well done. They see a little bit of themselves in each other, and I saw a little bit of myself, too.
Experiments in Manga
Kokoro is an epic melodrama of isolation and self-inflicted guilt. A beautiful heartfelt experience from the exploring friendship between a young graduate student and his mentor(Sensei).Soseki brilliantly unveils an intricate web of egoism,guilt,temptations and loneliness through various anecdotes on Sensei's reclusive living. No wonder Soseki succeeded Lafacdio Hearn as a lecturer in English Literature in the Imperial University(1903).
“Kokoro” tells the story of a narrator who sees a man walking down a beach one day; he eventually befriends this man who we only come to know as “Sensei.” The development of their relationship and growing friendship forms the first part of the book’s tripartite structure. The narrator repeatedly emphasizes his own naiveté in contrast with the worldliness and cynicism of Sensei. Sensei is a guarded man who is old enough to work but chooses not to (we never get the impression that this is out of laziness), has few close friends, and doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve. While the innocent young narrator initially sees Sensei as the stereotypical older wise man, he slowly begins to realize that he has something unique to teach him.
When the Emperor dies, his beloved General Nogi commits junshi, ritual suicide after the death of one’s feudal lord or master. Being a man of the old Tokugawa era, this act evokes more of a reaction in the Sensei than it does in the younger narrator – another sign that Soseki is telling the story of a generational and cultural divide. When Sensei sees General Nogi kill himself out of loyalty for the Emperor, he realizes that he doesn’t feel comfortable in this new Meiji dispensation, with the “modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves.”
The second part, “My Parents and I,” sees the narrator’s father’s health start to decline, which leaves his future as a very recent college graduate very uncertain. He and his brother are both curious about what the will has in store for them, but the recent manner in which General Nogi died brutally underscores the new era’s selfish interest in material things. The last part consists of a very long letter that Sensei wrote to the narrator before he too decides to commit suicide. We learn of his youth, his family, and an episode during his time as a student (that I won’t reveal here) that ties together all the facets of Sensei’s personality and finally completely reveals who he is.
Throughout the novel, the prose is spare, sharp, lean, and clear. Even Sensei’s voice, in his extended letter, varies very little stylistically from that of the narrator. This spare quality adds a sense of quiet distance between the reader and the story, which perhaps for more harmonious reflection. The language may just be the product of a particularly good translation, but I found the writing well suited to describing the characters and the Soseki’s themes: human frailty, the inevitability of the culture clash, the unrelenting quality of modernity, and confrontation with one’s troubled youth.
Kokoro means heart in Japanese, and it stands for not only the physical heart but also for the metaphorical heart of the matter and the spiritual center of being. In the book, it can be taken to mean all of the above, and some aspects of it can even be reminiscent of the Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe, which gives it still an additional dimension. It also comes from roughly the same historical period as Poe’s work, the time when Japan was in transition- it started to open itself to the West. Soseki studied and lived in England for some period as well, and it’s reflected in the book where typical and traditional Japanese values and behaviours intermingle with the Western stress on the individual. The book starts slowly and progresses at a languid pace until it suddenly develops towards the end and then it gathers great speed and is as unstoppable as a freight train.
An interesting read altogether, but I doubt it will ever become my favourite.
It's easy to tell that Natsume Soseki was concerned with themes of isolation, especially loneliness resulting from the rapid social changes during the Meiji Period of Japan, when Japan was rapidly adapting technology and the cultural customs of western countries. It's hard for me to relate to, but I think there are some similarities to today with how the internet has changed the dynamics of how people relate to one another. While being more and more connected in every way we are still interfacing with a screen isolated from the outside, creating a new kind of loneliness.
There's also a lot to take away from this novel as historic piece of work. One being that no western novel of the same period could ever sustain the kind of avoidance and mystery of the past for so long. By applying to the very traditional Japanese custom of discretion Soseki manages to create an atmosphere of suspense in what amounts to a slow plodding character driven novel. The other is that Meiji Period must have been very hard for much of the older and more traditional Japanese to adjust to. Ever society has a period of immense change in its history, but I get a sense that this was especially traumatic for a society like Japan that had been closed to the outside for long. A very worthwhile look at the affects of the Meiji Period.
Kokoro has a unusual structure. It is divided into two parts. In the first part the narrator describes his friendship with an older man who he calls “Sensei” or teacher. The narrator also chronicles his own father’s serious illness. The narrator has a distant relationship with his parents; who seem to represent a traditional, more rural Japan. Sensei is urbane, but feels empty. It seems bizarre that anyone would cultivate a teacher/student relationship with Sensei, who never does anything. The second half of the book is a letter from Sensei to the narrator. In the letter he gives the back-story and explains his passivity.
I read this book right after reading [Norwegian Wood] and was struck by many similar themes. On the back of the book, (translation by Meredith McKinney). Murakami is quoted as saying “Soseki is the representative modern Japanese novelist, a figure of truly national stature.”
Definitely a book that made me think. I would highly recommend it.
It's a story about friendship, love, and betrayal. It's strength lies in the last part of the book in which we hear directly from Sensei, a friend of the university student who narrates the beginning of this book, as Sensei reveals how one important decision he makes during his life causes him unending guilt and deep spiritual pain.
I sincerely want to delve into more work by this amazing Japanese writer. I can't believe it took me so long to remove this book from my bookshelf and finally read it. What a treasure!
The first half of the book deals with how an unnamed narrator befriends Sensei, who has lived an idle life with his wife, slowly withdrawing more and more from society and other people as he finds his guilt growing harder and harder to deal with. The narrator, largely oblivious to all of this, sees Sensei as a great man despite his lack of accomplishments and spends a significant period of time trying to get to know him and emulating his lifestyle. Eventually the narrator must return home after graduating from university to take care of his dying father. His father, a provincial who lives in the country, seems to have inflated expectations compared to what the narrator actually believes he can achieve, and as his condition slowly deteriorates the narrator indulges him in several fictions to ease his passing. Just before his father is apparently going to finally die the narrator receives a letter from Sensei detailing his life (as set out above) and claiming that he will have committed suicide by the time the letter arrives. Distraught, the narrator leaves his father on his deathbed to return to Tokyo and find Sensei.
It seems very difficult to interpret Sensei as anything other than largely symbolic of the transition of Japanese life from the traditional (country nobleman whose hobbies include things like flower arrangement) to the modern (urban living, attendance at a Western style university, associating with a Westerner at the beach). With this in mind, I took the narrator's interaction with Sensei to be a reflection of Soseki's beliefs about his era's attachment to the old ways of life, which were still viewable but fading every day in early 1900s Japan. The narrator feels an innate affinity for Sensei and his more traditional way of life, but Sensei is largely unable to reciprocate. The narrator would even like to emulate Sensei, but with the economic realities of the day it seems unlikely that the narrator would actually be able to carry those ambitions out. Finally, the fate of Sensei raises the question of whether such emulation is desirable at all. Sensei's ties to the past have seemed to give him nothing but trouble, and his inability to let go of it has tormented him. The traditional aspects of his life have not seemed to give him any special strength with which to deal with the modern world.
This was my interpretation at least, and it makes Kokoro a much more neutral stance towards modernization than I'm used to seeing in Japanese literature. It's of course possible to interpret the book differently, but the narrator's final actions taken for Sensei's sake seem to be strong evidence that an infatuation with the past leads to more harm than good. Ultimately, however, Kokoro provides little concrete information about the ultimate fates of its characters. We never actually find out happens to the narrator's father, or what the fallout is for the narrator's decision to return to Tokyo. We don't even really know what befalls Sensei, we are merely informed by Sensei of what he claims he's going to do if he has the strength for it. Ultimately, the only thing we are left knowing for sure is that the old era is over. An appropriately open ended message for a Japanese book of that time.
With all that being said, I didn't love this book. Symbolism aside, you had a story about a couple characters that weren't particularly sympathetic dealing with problems of their own design, and dealing with them poorly. As already stated, we don't even find out how it all plays out, the novel ending before any definitive action is reached. The minimalist prose worked for this book, but it rarely had that beauty in sparseness sometimes captured by minimalist writing (though that might be due to the translation). The characters likewise didn't feel particularly distinct, as the narrator and Sensei were the only ones given depth and they read as very, very similar (though that may well have been intentional on Soseki's part given their symbolic roles). This was one of those books that was more fun to analyze than it was to read by a noticeable margin, while great works pull off both. Give this a try if you're interested in pre-WWII Japanese literature.
A note on the edition Edwin McClellan translated: the minimalist prose he adopts seems appropriate, but I'm not sure how much faith I have in the translation given the note on page 49 describing go as "a kind of checkers." The use of the word "excited" on page 64 and 65 also seems a bit strange to me, and I suspect the connotation of the original word would be different, but I can't read Japanese well enough to take a stab at an independent interpretation. I'm not saying there's a better translation out there, but if you're thinking of picking up a copy you might want to compare a couple editions online before making your choice.
The student was no hero. He was naive, deeply flawed, and unbalanced. How else to explain his sudden, rash "Remains of the Day decision" to leave his father's deathbed in order to pursue his obsession with Sensei? Possibly we all can relate to the student's feeling, in some form, of profound personal conflict...but, still, he totally flunked out at a critical moment for himself and his family.
Sensei's letter was indeed the most engaging part of "Kokoro", as it provided an interesting and compelling back story for how, and under what circumstances, he arrived at his station in life and adopted his overall piss poor, untrusting attitude about himself and others. As described in the letter, the relationship dynamics between Sensei and "K", his erstwhile student peer and friend, were plenty weird. Yet they also were understandable and, to a certain extent, transcended the specific zeitgeist of early 20C Japanese culture.
Ultimately, I won't pretend to understand Sensei and the decisions that he made. I also can't comprehend the relationship between Sensei and the student. If these connections were in some way emblematic of early 20C Japanese mores or culture, I simply didn't get them.
It's all very carefully, delicately built up, with a lot of everyday detail about the rapidly-changing face of Japan in the decades before 1914 used to reflect and explain the development of the conflicts the characters are dealing with. Very much a book about male friendships (what used to be called "homosocial" relationships in the good old days of literary theory), where the women rarely speak and don't have all that much to do apart from arranging flowers and cooking (is that why Penguin coincidentally put a brush-stroke across the woman's eyes in the cover design?). But that's an accusation that would be equally true of a lot of western novels of the same period.
Very interesting, and McKinnon's translation reads very naturally and transparently.
This intimate book illustrates the clash between two generations of Japanese men (I emphasize on MEN since this book really sets women apart)... This is a highly philosophical book, not in a theorical way, but in it's capacity of finding a way to explain through
a simple voice the change that took place with the end of an «obsolete», or traditional, way of thinking the world (in contradiction to the «modern world») in Japan.
I think one needs to have at least minimal knowledge of Japanese history and philosophy to appreciate what this novel is about.
Worth rereading, since this book is about a lot more than a simple character's story.
As Kokoro begins, Soseki is a young man bored by life. He befriends the older Sensei, who believes the young man has sought him out of loneliness. He sees himself as unworthy of society and having no help to offer. Although Soseki is often confused by Sensei, he learns more about the old man by talking to Sensei’s wife, Shizu. The two become closer, and Soseki learns that a friend’s sudden death led Sensei to isolate himself from society. The narrator often feels like Sensei disappoints him. This has been compared to the attitudes of the Japanese people during the Meiji era, the narrator has hope that Sensei will ultimately bring change to his life: “Sensei frequently disappointed me in this way…whenever some unexpected terseness of his shook me, my impulse was to press forward with the friendship. It seemed too that if I did so, my yearning for the possibilities of all he had to offer would someday be fulfilled” (p. 10).
He returns home after graduation and helps his father in the garden, but soon his father takes ill at the same time that Emperor Meiji does. Soseki gets a letter from Sensei. He reads it and learns that Sensei has decided to kill himself. He races to the train, praying that both his father and Sensei will live long enough for him to help. He continues to read Sensei’s story, which reveals his life story as promised.
Sensei's story is one of bitterness and betrayal. He has a relationship with a woman, but he is not confident enough to reveal his feelings to her. Sensei is concerned about his friend K, a deeply religious man with an obsession with torturing the body to glorify the soul. Although Sensei and Ojosan marry and have many happy years together, both admit to Soseki in their private moments that they are not as close as they could be due to the barrier Sensei has erected. There is a lot that goes unsaid between them, and Sensei buries his guilt by losing himself in alcohol and books. However, neither gets rid of his pain for long. Seeing that the times are changing, Sensei decides it is time to share his life story and requests Soseki visit. However, Soseki cannot come due to his father’s illness, so Sensei writes down his life as a testament to his closest friend. He states that he hopes his life story will be a guide to those who have much to learn about life.
The book is divided into three parts. Part One is “Sensi and I,” which tells the story of a young, unnamed college student. One day at the beach, he sees a man who dives into the ocean and swims out of sight. He continues watching until the swimmer returns. The young man sees him twice more, but he never strikes up a conversation. Finally, he introduces himself, but the man, who he has named “SensI,” seems uninterested. Sensi is a Japanese word meaning “teacher.” He asks Sensi, “Would it be all right if I visited you at your home now and then?” Sensi agrees. Sōseki writes, “Often, during my association with Sensi, I was disappointed in this way. Sometimes, Sensi seemed to know that I had been hurt, and sometimes, he seemed not to know. But no matter how often I experienced such trifling disappointments, I never felt any desire to part from Sensi. Indeed, each time I suffered a rebuff, I wished more than ever to push our friendship further” (8). To westerners, this behavior might seem odd at the least, but apparently, not to the Japanese. As time passes, the two men develop a moderately close relationship. Sensi also holds back some information, when the young man questions him. More about this in Part Two and Three.
Part Two is “My Parent’s and I.” The young man has managed to complete his degree. His father has developed an unspecified illness, and the young man returns home for an extended period. The father pushes his son to determine the course of his life. Sōseki writes, “‘I must go,’ I said, ‘if I am to find the kind of job that you had in mind for me.’ // I made it seem as though I wished to go to Tokyo merely to realize my father’s hopes for me. // ‘Of course, I want my allowance only until I find a job.’ // Secretly, I felt that there was little chance of my finding a decent position. But my father, who was somewhat removed from the realities of the world outside, firmly believed otherwise. // ‘All right,’ he said. ‘Since it will only be for a short time, I’ll see to it that you get your allowance. But only for a short time, mind. You must become independent as soon as you find employment’” (98). Before the son leaves for Tokyo, he receives a manuscript from Sensi. He begins to read, but it is long and complicated. He saves the reading for a later date.
Part Three is “Sensi and His Testament.” The “Testament” is the long manuscript-letter Sensi sent to the young man. In it, Sensi answers the questions the young man had asked during their friendship. Shortly after, Sensi dies. In the letter, he reveals the source of his misanthropy as a way to instruct the young man in his future. This fascinating story of friendship, teaching, learning by the great Japanese writer Kokoro by Netsume Sōseki is a serious philosophical exploration of life and death. 5 stars.